Somerset church group returns home after harrowing trip to Guatemala
SOMERSET, Wis. — It was three gun shots that changed their lives.
Seven Riverside Church missionaries spoke Sunday about the harrowing robbery experience that cut short their recent Guatemala mission trip.
The group of seven includes Riverside Pastor Bill Hieb, Pastor Judy Vaccaro, Deacon Geno Vaccaro, Don Lonergan, Grant and Lisa Lind and Sheryl Dzieweczynski was part of a larger group in Guatemala that included Jessie Bystrom from California, and Jorge and Mavel Romero of St. Paul, who were their hosts in Guatemala. Heib said Sunday’s service at the Somerset church celebrated life, thanks and support for the entire group that returned safely from Guatemala.
Riverside Church focuses much of its efforts on global ministry and members have taken more than 93 mission trips and 460 missionaries worldwide during its 20-year history.
When the group landed Jan. 23 at Guatemala City airport, Geno Vaccaro said the trip seemed like any other as they traveled on the four-and-a-half hour drive from the airport to the home they were staying. They made a couple of stops along the way, and at the last rest stop, they heard a girl on a cell phone say “chicos” a few times as she walked in amongst the group.
The missionaries believe the girl was giving their soon-to-be abductors a signal that they were on their way. They left the rest stop around 8:58 p.m. and while traveling down the two-lane highway, a car pulled up along the driver’s side and four men started screaming at the van to pull over with their guns blazing as they ran the car off the road.
“We got hijacked about a half-hour before we reached the house,” Heib said. “I saw the muzzle flash three times and I thought our driver had been hit because he ducked down behind the wheel as we were shot at.”
The group’s driver, who the missionaries call Obed, was uninjured and tried to push on the accelerator to get the group away.
“They (the men) entered the car like a SWAT team and commandeered it,” Geno Vaccaro said. “They were saying they were cops and suspected drugs and they were going to take us to the police station. They threw our driver in the back seat over the head rest and went for a little less than a mile then went off the road and that’s when I knew we were not going to the police station.”
Lonergan said that when they turned off the road into the jungle, the van was bouncing back and forth as though they were four-wheeling and at times felt as though they would tip over. They stopped a short time later in the middle of the jungle. After the car stopped, the four men roughly took the missionaries out of the car while whistling to others in the woods to signal that they had them.
Heib was one of the first ones out with a pistol jammed to his side, followed by the others; Lisa Lind was the last woman in the van. Geno Vaccaro said some captors spoke English but only when they wanted the group to understand what they were saying. Jorge Romero attempted to protect the missionaries, telling the captors not to hurt them because they were missionaries. For this Romero was beaten-up.
During their removal from the van Judy Vaccaro and Lisa Lind managed to hide a total of $1,300 from the captors which was used to get them home to the U.S.
“I was the last woman in the car and I was fiddling with my purse,” Lisa said. “I found $300 in my purse and put it under my c-section wound. I was very thankful for that fat roll for the first time in my life. Then I was looking at my ring and put it in a water bottle, thinking that if we came back to the van and found it we could pawn it.”
“When the abductors had us outside the van they laid us facedown like cord-wood. They took our shoes off and tied our ankles together, some to other people, I was tied to Sheryl,” Lonergan, a first-time missionary said. “I knew at that moment that whatever Sheryl was gonna go through we were gonna go through it together. It was not an act of heroism, but an assignment from the Lord to take care of each other.”
Once they were all face-down on the ground, the missionaries said despite their fear an intense sense of peace came over them. Some had encouraging Bible verses pop into their heads saying that God would not forsake them while others had a mental picture pop into their heads of angel guards surrounding them and keeping them safe.
Others thought about their families and friends back home but all of them prayed. The group lay there for what they estimate as two-and-a-half hours bound, with pistols being cocked near their heads as the men went through their luggage and took clothes, supplies and electronics that could be turned around for cash quickly.
“When they cocked the guns behind my head I thought: ‘If this is it Lord, I’m fine’,” Dziewecynski said. “ ‘Lord if you want me OK, but I’m not ready to go yet, I still have a lot to do for you yet. Give the team strength, give the captors the presence to know about you and I asked for salvation for them to know the presence of God’.”
Although their captors were cruel, one or two showed compassion by providing the group with t-shirts and blankets to put their faces on and keep them warm as the missionaries shivered on the ground.
“When they gave me that blanket, I knew they weren’t going to kill us,” Heib said.
The captors then told him that they were going to leave and come back and they should stay there and not call the police or attempt to escape because if they did they would be killed. After they were sure the men were gone the missionaries freed themselves from their bonds and quickly assessed the damage to see how to find a way to get help.
Jorge left to get the police and quickly came back with them. The police officer told them they needed to grab their things and get out because it wasn’t safe, then took the group to their destination. Investigation of the incident remains in the hands of Guatemalan officials. The missionaries did some mission work with their remaining supplies before they came home.
Despite the harrowing experience, Bill Hieb said the missionaries do not want to be seen as victims and they choose to give all the glory to God who delivered them from their captors. Many of them said their faith has been re-invigorated through this experience. He also added that mission trips for Riverside are on hold. The group will get counseling going forward, and whether the group can forgive the men is something the pastor and the missionaries say will come in due time.